Thursday, 26 July 2012

Jogia banned

Joe Jogia's two-year ban from professional snooker shows the WPBSA mean business.

The severity of the punishment requires a sharp intake of breath upon first sight, but also appears to come with quite conclusive evidence and fires a stern warning to any other players tempted by underhand activity.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Facing disciplinary action in relation to the suspicious betting patterns ahead of his match with Matt Selt at the Sky Snooker Shootout at Blackpool in January, evidence against Jogia is pretty damning.

A number of bets were placed on Selt to win, which Jogia attributes to an injury he picked up in the build-up to the match. He withdrew from the match but the investigation shows four of these bets were made before his injury was sustained.

Jogia was suspended in May pending further investigation and the key evidence is summarised here. A total of 19 bets were made or attempted at different betting shops in the Leicester on Jogia to lose. Fourteen of the bets came to a total of £4,830, another four reached £2,300 and the final one for an unknown amount was declined.

Two people placing bets were associates of Jogia and in regular telephone contact before the the stakes were laid. Jogia sent 33 text messages and made three phone calls to one of them and sent 42 text messages and made one phone call to the other.

Unable to give a reasonable explanation for this, Jogia will serve a ban until the end of the 2014 World Championship and must pay a hefty £2,000 fine towards the costs of the hearing and investigation of the case.

With his reputation in tatters, this is potentially the end for Jogia in the professional ranks. Currently ranked number 57 in the world, he will be forced to re-qualify for the main tour if he wishes to return. He has been made an example of and the case is a clear message of the hard line WPBSA will take to matters that bring the sport into disrepute.

Here's the full statement issued by World Snooker.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Maguire on a march

There aren't many greater sights in snooker than seeing Stephen Maguire playing at the very top of his game.

For the past six months, he's been very close to being back to his best. His capture of the UKPTC1 title in Gloucester tonight is more evidence of that.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Add this to last season's victory at the PTC12 in Germany, reaching the finals of the German Masters and China Open and making the final four at the World Championship, and you get the sense he's back in the groove.

A great all-round match player. A dominator. A foot on the throat attacker .A momentum man. We've heard all of them when it comes to talking about a confident Maguire. We saw glimpses of all of these attributes in his 4-3 victory against Jack Lisowski as he gets used to winning again.

This spell of form - dating back to February - is now more than a purple patch. Maguire is back in the running for titles on a consistent basis and will be keen to win another big one this season.

After all, you have to go back to the 2008 China Open for his last. A mixture of factors have probably contributed to this mini-drought, not least the massive competition to win titles in the sport. But mark my words, Maguire is still a top, top player capable of winning all the major honours.

As well a cheque for £10,000 and another trophy in the cabinet, victory at this PTC will act as a great confidence booster. Maguire has a platform to build on in what could become a very fruitful season for him.

While Maguire rightly takes the plaudits tonight, runner-up Jack Lisowski is worthy of great praise as well.

He came within touching distance of winning his first professional title and could only watch as his opponent sunk the final black in a dramatic deciding frame, after he missed a routine yellow off the spot.

It's a credit to Jack - and how far he's come - that he will be so disappointed by defeat. Now into his third season in the professional ranks, he turns up at these tournaments to win rather than just gain vital experience.

This is the second PTC final he's been beaten in, but he is still developing and is not yet the final product. Once he does dust away scars of this defeat, there are many positives for him to take.

He beat world number two and flatmate Judd Trump and world number three Mark Williams on a weekend where he played some cracking snooker. He was fearless, went for his shots and took the game to his higher-ranked opponents.

Jack will be back and will win events in his career. He has a great game and a fine attitude to go with it. He showed great guts in Gloucester and nearly secured a milestone moment in his career.

But his bravery on the baize shouldn't surprise us. Just four years ago, Lisowski was diagnosed with cancer, but is here to tell the tale after winning his battle against the disease. He's made of stern stuff and is unlikely to have his spirits dampened for too long.

Jack is in the unfortunate position of living in the shadow of his best friend Judd, but I have no doubt he will go on to become a great force in the sport alongside his pal.

It's worth remembering he is at a different stage of his career to Trump and the realisation of that could be the key to his success this season. Jack isn't afraid of hard work and has all the key ingredients to rise to the top.

A new star is born?

Lu Haotian made history today by becoming the youngest winner of the IBSF World Under-21 Championship, aged just 14.

This young lad - already being hailed as a Chinese prodigy - joins a great list of players who have won the title, but to do it so early in a career is remarkable.

Ding Junhui, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Ken Doherty, Peter Ebdon and Neil Robertson are among the names on the trophy since it was made in 1987 and now the test is whether he can go on to enjoy enjoy as much success as them professionally.

With the main tour due to be enlarged to accommodate 128 professionals next season, it's unknown how qualification will be decided and whether winning this tournament still earns professional status.

I imagine it will and Lu will follow in the footsteps of Poland's Kacper Filipiak to play the game professionally at 15.

The age restriction of 16 was removed just last year but still people enter debate about whether it's right for someone so young to take up professional sport.

There's definitely an argument that if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Lu shouldn't be accused of not being good enough. Just this season, he's already taken three frames off of Tom Ford at the APTC1 and two from Fergal O'Brien in the Wuxi Classic wildcard round.

His performances already seem assured and he looks capable enough of mixing it. Watch this video below to see him in action over four frames against Peter Ebdon at the China Open, and decide for yourself whether you think he's good enough.

But there's more to it than just ability. The pressures of playing professional sport, let alone snooker, are immense. It is a very difficult game mentally. Could that take its toll on someone so young? And, what about the young boy's education? Should that be sacrificed at a time when long-term success in the game isn't yet guaranteed?

Plenty to think about.

But for now, Lu should be commended for a great achievement.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Going to Gloucester

Dr Foster went to Gloucester, according to the famous old nursery rhyme.

I could never see the fascination of the place what with all the rain and puddles - but it's different now.

Picture supplied by the SWSA
Launch of the South West Snooker Academy (SWSA) has transformed Gloucester into an exciting hotbed for snooker.

The impressive 20,000 square foot facility is a haven for the game. With eight tables split into two hubs of four and an additional four practice tables, it's no surprise that so many professionals now call this place home.

Not only is the SWSA a first class base for players, but it's a world class venue as well.

It beat the Sheffield Academy hands down last season when it came to hosting the UK PTCs and now it will host all four on these shores.

The first event got under way yesterday with the amateur rounds in full flow, but tomorrow sees the introduction of the professionals and the countdown from the last 128 stage.

Last season's PTC series caused plenty of grievances but I'd expect the four events in Gloucester to get rave reviews this time.

The facilities are better than in Sheffield and there are more tables, meaning an end to the late night finishes. The crowd love it here too. There is room for spectators in Gloucester and a great opportunity for enthusiastic fans of the sport to see a wide raft of players over the quickfire three-day event.

The best-of-seven-frame format matches make it difficult to pick a winner. But the £10,000 winner's cheque on offer would be a good weekend's work in anyone's book.

Barry Hearn is determined to make the PTCs the cornerstone of the snooker calendar. Anyone who still wants to moan at Gloucester really will take some pleasing. Their creation have importantly got players playing regularly. They provide excellent match practice and the chance to pick up vital ranking points.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Talking Snooker with... Snookerbacker

The start of the new season has flown by and it's time for another edition of Talking Snooker.

To kick off the campaign, OnCue has secured a chat with one of the big ones. Welcome popular blogger and Twitter funnyman Snookerbacker to the debate.

It's time to talk. Why have the events so far been dominated by players from the chasing pack? Will the highest ranked players turn up to the party soon? Have we seen the end of Ronnie? And, who are the players to watch for the rest of the season?

OnCue: Thanks for joining me. It looks like you've been keeping busy judging from your Twitter timeline. It's always great to hear your comments, but hopefully we'll delve a bit deeper than 140 characters today. It's been a great season so far; if not least for its surprises. How are things your end?

Snookerbacker: Yeah, I'm good. I've been watching lots of the snooker and organising the second Snookerbacker Classic. I'm glad all the places are filled. It's taken a weight off of mind.

OnCue: You must have been pretty confident after last season's success...

Sunday, 15 July 2012

The Hawk swoops in for Australian title

Barry Hawkins has realised a dream by winning the Australian Open.

This is the first ranking title for a player with bundles of ability and a first class attitude to go with it.

The former world number 12 has always been good enough to claim a top prize but now he's done it, he can look back at a job well done.

His 9-3 against Peter Ebdon was not only his first ever final, but a masterclass in how to beat an opponent as stiff as The Force.

Barry's greatest asset is his scoring and attacking instinct, and he stuck by that whole-heartedly. He refused to let Ebdon smother him and took the match to him with great success.

It was obvious he couldn't let Peter slow down the match and dig his heels in so he stuck to his natural game - which can sometimes be difficult in the biggest matches - and earned great rewards.

Hawkins will hope this win will be the start of an excellent season. He should have regaining a place in the world's top 16 firmly in his sights. This win plus victory at the Sky Shootout in January proves he can deliver on the big occasions, and that confidence should set him in great shape.

I've never heard a bad word said about Hawkins. That makes this win even better. He's a player who has definitely put in the graft and deserves his title.

Just like when Stuart Bingham won his first title here a year ago, this is a massive moment and he has a big old trophy to match.

Well played Barry.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Battle of Bendigo

The winner of tomorrow's Australian Open final will be able to look with great satisfaction at reaching a career milestone.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Peter Ebdon has the chance to win a tenth ranking event title. This would take him level with Jimmy White with only Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams having won more.

That in itself is a fantastic achievement. Ebdon's style of play has this week - and before - attracted plenty of negative comments, but his record speaks for itself. He has had a fine career and maximised his ability.

He is the master of finding a way to win and will be very proud of what he's achieved.

After a three-year wait for his ninth title, he won the China Open back in April and is back at the business end of the tournament in Bendigo. Ebdon has a fantastic conversion rate once he plays himself into a tournament. I read today that he's won eight of his 11 finals in the past 15 years and once again this week we've seen the employment of his trademark resolute style to plot his way to the final, and many believe his victory would now be predictable.

Picture by Monique Limbos
But standing in his way is one Barry Hawkins, who is within touching distance of his first major ranking event win.

His 6-4 defeat of Mark Davis today marked his first semi-final win in five attempts and he now has a crack at winning his first major trophy in his 16-year career.

He seems to be playing as confidently as he was when he rose to a career-high world ranking of 12.

At his best, Hawkins is a heavy scorer and definitely possesses the ability to claim a title. He won the Sky Shootout back in January and has headed in the right direction since.

He has a chance to follow in the footsteps of Stuart Bingham and claim his maiden win Down Under. It would set himself up nicely for a successful season.

Ebdon is probably slight favourite because of his nous and experience in finals, but Hawkins has beaten him in eight out of their 10 meetings.

Let the battle commence.

Mind the gap

The Australian Open. No surprises here.

With seven of the top 16 players in the world refusing to enter, we all said this was one of the most open ranking events in years, and so it has been proved.

Here we are at the semi-finals stages of the Bendigo event and none of the world's elite are here to contest it.

A trip Down Under was always a chance for one of the sport's lesser stars to grab the headlines.

For an outsider looking in, this is just another excuse for a poor ranking tournament away from the UK  shores but in reality this is just more evidence of the chasing pack tightening the gap towards the top players, as an increase of events continues to pay dividends.

The modern game of snooker is all about matchplay. Time on the practice table is proving insignificant as those willing to travel reap the rewards.

We're down to the last four in Australia but still the plot is as thick as ever.

Mark Davis waited 21 years of his professional career to reach a ranking event semi-final; now he's made it to two.

Following his excellent run at the Wuxi Classic, he's down to the last four again and playing as freely as ever.

He faces Barry Hawkins. He's a player who now boasts participation in five semi-finals but is yet to make a final. The former world number 12 clearly has plenty of potential but needs to couple his heavy scoring with better nous in bigger matches.

Marco Fu is still among the contenders. He is one of the grossly inconsistent players on the tour but continues to be capable of mastery. On his day, Fu is up there with the very best but too often he is poor. His form fluctuates to such extremes that makes him impossible to read.

Making a ranking final would be a minor miracle when you consider his record over the past year, and Peter Ebdon stands in his way.

The 2002 world champion has been the talk of the town this week, even if for the wrong reasons. It's easy to criticise Ebdon's slow play, but we should remember that even three months ago it helped him to a title.

He is getting results and deserves credit for his graft.

Picking a winner from here is almost impossible. The tournament is wide open and it's time for one of the pretenders to claim the throne.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The speed of Ebdon

Peter Ebdon was up to his old tricks again today at the Australian Open - and it feels like the season is really under way now.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Sparks flew across Twitter as he literally crawled over the line Ding Junhui.

At stages of his 5-4  win against China's number one he was averaging 39 seconds per shot and boring his opponent into submission.

We got the usual reactions. The pro-Ebdon camp say he's not breaking the rules of the game. The ant-Ebdon camp say his gamesmanship is unacceptable.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Ebdon's tortoise-speed play is - rightly or wrongly - a proven technique for beating top players in the game. It could be argued that while Peter doesn't have the natural ability to match a player such as Ding, slowing down the tempo of a match is a reasonable way of bridging that gap.

To strengthen this opinion it's worth considering that despite his 'antics', Ding still actually came almighty close to weathering the storm and progressing to the quarter-finals. This might not make it right, but it shows he's up for the challenge.

The age old saying says you can't do anything in your chair. If Ding had kept Ebdon in his chair for longer and made more of his chances he would have won the match, irrespective of his opponent. That is a fact.

Ebdon won the world Championship a decade ago and even then, at the height of his power, his tactics helped him achieve his ultimate goal. He isn't the player he was back then but yet he still won a tournament as recent as the China Open just three months ago.

To consistently win titles, as Ding is striving to, he he will have to overcome all sorts, including Ebdon-esque pace. You could argue this is all part of the challenge of the modern game.

If every player played the same, we would have one dull sport on our hands.

This is the extremity of that argument, of course, and many people believe Ebdon has over-stepped the mark. Some of the turgid matches Peter has been involved in down the years have, quite frankly, been painful to watch.

I hear people say it's bad for the game but I don't believe that the playing styles of one, or even a few players, is enough to drive away real fans, or deter new ones.

If watching Ebdon really pains you that much then don't watch him play. It's very simple. 

Love him or loathe him, Ebdon has got everyone talking again after an otherwise mediocre start to the season. Make no mistake, Peter is still one of our sport's great characters.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Cao for now

It looks like the time has come for Cao Yupeng to seize his opportunity in snooker's senior ranks.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The young Chinese star famously beat Mark Allen 10-6 at the World Championship this year in his first ranking event appearance, and he's made a mark again at his second today with victory over two-time Crucible finalist Ali Carter.

It was unfortunate that Allen took the shine off his win in Sheffield with a distasteful slur against Chinese players in his post-match press conference, but he did also emphasise how Cao has a false world ranking.

Beating Carter reiterates that point and this time no-one can overshadow his win.

The 21-year-old has now beaten two top 16 players fair and square in a matter of months and is building quite a list of scalps.

Cao is one of many talented players currently plying their trade in the qualifying arena, but ability will only get you so far. To be a real success you need to be good under pressure and capable of turning it on in front of the cameras. Cao looks like he's got that cracked and so can credibly be considered as a player with the potential to one day rival the success of far and away his most successful compatriot, Ding Junhui.

His most impressive quality is his touch in and around the balls. He shows great experience beyond his years in that department. Cao has a fine array of different shots, great cue power and plays the table as he sees it.  He's a very attack-minded players who goes for his shots.

His tactical game is likely to improve with age but, for now, he looks like quite the package.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Can Robertson be the Winner in Oz?

Neil Robertson would love dearly to be crowned the Wizard of Oz.

Picture by Moniqe Limbos
The Australian home hopeful began his trip along the yellow brick road in almost perfect fashion today. His 5-1 demolition of Nigel Bond was ruthless, commanding and made to look easy.

But his journey began very similarly here a year ago too, where he also beat Bond in the opening round. It was Dominic Dale in round two who caused him greater problems, winning a dramatic deciding frame to dash the hopes of the locals and leave poor Robertson stunned in front of his family, friends and fans.

Plenty of people are tipping a fairytale ending to his second Australian snooker venture, but there's still a long way to go before he can rewrite last year's wrong.

I guarantee you that no-one would begrudge him victory on his home soil this week.

Robertson is a perfect example of a player who grasped the nettle to make his dream of playing professional come true. The chances to play the sport competitively in Australia have always been next to none and it's only now because of Robertson's great impact in the game that we're seeing this tournament on our televisions.

In an age of the game where large numbers of British players moan about the vast amounts of travel they must do to retain their ranking, it's worth considering that Neil did that just to start out his life within the sport.

He upped sticks, left his homeland and took a gamble on his talent by coming to England with little money in his pocket and just hope he could carve out a name for himself.

Make a name for himself, he has done.

The current Masters champion and 2010 world champion is, today, one of the finest players on the planet. He's got everything. A super tactical game, long-potting prowess and a super cool attitude.

Not only is he a fine talent, but a great bloke as well.

Winning back in Australia would mean the world to him. With that comes pressure but the prospect of putting the largest of smiles on his home fan's faces should be his motivation.

Robertson has laid the foundations for a truly great week.

He'll be desperate to go on to lift the trophy now.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Going Down Under

The Australian Open returns to the snooker calendar for a second season - and the fight for the title couldn't be more wide open.

Seven of the world's top 16 players have chosen not to travel to Bendigo for the second ranking event of the campaign, and that's completely up to them.

No-one is being forced to play in any events and if players think the ranking points and prize money are not enough to warrant such a long haul trip, then again that's up to them.

I won't be pointing the finger at anyone. The world's best players have earned the right to pick and choose which events they play in.

But the bigger picture suggests that without the backing of the game's star names, it reduces the chances of the event growing into something greater years down the line. The game of snooker is still a work in progress.

Rather than focus on who's not in Bendigo, I'd prefer to talk about who has made the trip.

Unsurprisingly, defending champion Stuart Bingham is back Down Under for another slice of the action. He won his first ranking title here a year ago as he dramatically fought back from 8-5 down to beat Mark Williams 9-8.

He's made an impressive start to this season and is playing well enough to repeat his heroics.

In the same half of the draw is Australia's own, Neil Robertson. He lost in the second round of this tournament last time, but will be desperate to put on more of a show for his home fans this week.

The big names in the other half of the draw are Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy, who will be as committed to this tournament as they are to all of them plus, Ding Junhui, who needs some results and is always capable of going all the way.

Aside from the big stars, there are a whole host of other players who will want to seize their chance in the absence of many.

Stephen Lee will want to get back to the form he found at the back of last season. Mark Davis, Marcus Campbell and Ricky Walden are form horses. Martin Gould could do with a confidence boost. Matthew Stevens kicks off his campaign. Alan McManus, Peter Ebdon, Ken Dohert and Nigel Bond represent the old guard. Jack Lisowski, Xiao Guodong and Cao Yupeng are exciting young prospects.

Click here to see the full Bendigo draw.

Enjoy the tournament.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Sixy snooker

Mark Davis won this afternoon's six reds final 8-4 against Shaun Murphy and can take plenty of confidence into the rest of the campaign.

From the action I saw, he played some the best snooker throughout the tournament. He deserves his title and the winning cheque for £40,000.

He's got history too. He won a six reds Championship back in 2009 and obviously enjoys the format.

The pros and cons of the idea of six reds - launched back in 2008 - have been debated at length this week among the snooker community, but for Davis it's nothing but good.

He looks to have continued the good form he showed to reach the Wuxi Classic semi-final, picks up a piece if silverware, enjoys a great pay day and will only grow in confidence

It's event worth winning, for sure, and great practice for the players ahead of next week's Australian Open, but what do we the public think of the format.

It was launched five years ago to give the game a bit of a lift at a time when it was really needed, but has been gazumped in the past two years by the launch of Barry Hearn's snooker revolution.

Variety is important in any sport and with a season so long, there's no harm in the event but some will enjoy it more than others.

I'm not the biggest fan of the format.

A frame of six reds snooker reminds me of the occasions where I've been playing a friend down the club and don't quite have time for another frame, but I'm not ready to leave yet either.

It feels like a watered-down format traditional game and stifles the excellence of break building.The slow-burning drama of the usual game is lost as well.

The format does of course have its merits. It fast forwards straight to be the business end of a normal frame, where we often see the most excitement and is easy enough to dip in and out of without as much concentration.

But as a format, I don't think it's different enough to the traditional game to draw in any new fans to the sport.

Let's get back to the ranking event action.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Walden wins in Wuxi

Ricky Walden won a bizarre Wuxi Classic final to secure his second major ranking event title.

His 10-4 victory against Stuart Bingham was comprehensive - with him leading 9-1 at one point - but the match included a 147 maximum break plus a further two centuries from the eventual runner-up.

Picture by Kiss Zslot
Despite Bingham's exploits, it's the Chester-born potter who is cheering. He adds to his 2008 capture of Shanghai Masters and sets himself up nicely for the season ahead.

In a week where many of the top stars were knocked out in the early rounds, it's no surprise to see Walden and Bingham get to the final. It's a big season for both of them as they look consolidate their places in the top 16, and this was an excellent effort.

Both of these lads love their snooker and are 100 per cent dedicated to their profession.

To be playing competitive snooker in June is still somewhat of a novelty but they've taken the chance to cash in on many of their fellow players still being in holiday mode.

Walden will be pleased to finally add to his first title four years ago, and would be the first to admit he hasn't exactly pushed on from that like many expected.

Despite failing to qualify for the World Championship, he's managed to get himself back into the top 16 for the start of this season and will be hoping to settle in that company more than he did when he first broke in.

Confidence has never been a problem for him. He has great self-belief and when on form is one of the most attacking players around. This win will give him the chance to relax and produce his best.

Bingham would dearly have loved to add to the first major title he won at the Australian Open a year ago, but shouldn't be too disappointed with his place as runner-up.

He won all four of his matches to get to the final by a decider and showed great fighting qualities. His maximum break makes him only the third player to do it in a final, joining John Higgins and Stephen Hendry.

He would have swapped that accolade for winning enough scrappy frames to lift the trophy, but this doesn't take away from his excellent start to the season. He won the APTC1 event a week ago and also landed top prize at the Pink Ribbon pro-am event in last month. That gives him a great foundation to build on.

Next stop, Australia.